Category: Nordic Cinema

Of Horses and Men (Iceland 2013)

Ingvar E. Sigurðsson plays the lone farmer who proudly trots his mare down the road watched by a visitor from Latin America.

Ingvar E. Sigurðsson plays the lone farmer who proudly trots his mare down the road watched by a visitor from Latin America.

This is a riveting 80-something minutes of bravura filmmaking best seen on a big screen in a good-sized cinema (go here to find current bookings across the UK – often single screenings). It’s set in rural Iceland with sea, mountains and rough pasture and accompanied by a terrific soundtrack (including Icelandic choir performances). Described as ‘Comedy-Drama’ by the distributor, the humour is actually very dark. When I was going into the cinema I overheard an argument at the box office when someone couldn’t understand why the cinema would not admit her child (aged under 15). I suspect that the film would be very upsetting for most children – this isn’t a ‘horsey romance’.

There is no strong narrative as such. Instead we get a number of shorter narratives, mostly tragic with elements of comedy, involving the small farmers on the plain. The farmers all in some way live with/by the wild horses of the region, each year rounding up a number of them and breaking them for leisure or commerce of some kind. There is something of a documentary feel to the narrative structure in the way that the stories lead towards the big summer round-up. The community is quite ‘close’ in proximity but individuals are also competitive/jealous/promiscuous etc. The film’s English title (not a direct translation) misses out ‘women’, at least two of whom are also important narrative agents.

I was trying to think of another film that had a similar tone and I began to think of the Basque film Vacas (Cows) made by Julio Medem in 1992. A tight-knit community in a very specific locale with a strong local culture and some almost surreal local practices. At one point, when the various widows/divorcées are angered that one of their number has got her teeth into the most eligible male by teaming up with him during the horse round-up, the other women suggest that there should be more than two people doing the job taken by the couple. “It’s been a two-person job for a thousand years” retorts an older man.

Of Horses and Men is a début film for writer-director Benedikt Erlingsson and as such it is a staggering achievement, winning several international prizes as well as cleaning up at the Icelandic ‘Edda’ awards. One of the roles is played by the Icelandic actor who is best known by international audiences, Ingvar E. Sigurðsson, and I recognised at least one other actor from Jar City (2006), the last Icelandic film to get a significant release in the UK. Most of the stories have surprising twists which I don’t want to give away but I was intrigued by the reference to a famous sequence from Jan Troell’s The New Land (Sweden 1972) (what to do when you and your horse/ox etc. are caught in a snowstorm). The relatively few Icelandic films I’ve seen have all had ‘noirish’ features. The short film Whale Valley (Iceland-Denmark 2013) shares the dark tone and appears to have been shot in a similar location.

I enjoyed the film very much, but I turned away from the screen a couple of times since I’m squeamish about many forms of violence or medical procedure. Will the film please horse-lovers? I don’t know, but I think they will appreciate the representation of the horses (beautifully photographed) and the realism of certain scenes. Be warned, however, that the film ends with the message that all those taking part in the film are horse lovers and that “no horses were harmed during the making of the film”. Some pretty good CGI or VFX then, I think!

We Are the Best (Vi Ar Bäst, Sweden-Denmark 2013)

From left: Hedwig (Liv LeMoyne), Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin)

From left: Hedwig (Liv LeMoyne), Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) and Klara (Mira Grosin)

This is, very simply, one of the best and probably the funniest, films of the year. I laughed in recognition all the way through the film, even though I have very little experience of how 13 year-old girls behave. I was worried by that fact going in to the cinema but, of course, the experiences are universal. The three girls who shout out the title are three non-conformists in Stockholm in 1982 who tell us with force that “you may think that punk is dead – but we are here to tell you it’s alive!”. They do and it is.

Lukas Moodysson was seen as the great hope of Swedish cinema in the late 1990s when he released his first feature Fucking Åmål in 1998. That story involved two young girls bored by the limited opportunities in their local town of Åmål in Western Sweden. In the UK and US the title was changed to the mundane Show Me Love. I guess I should warn you that if you are offended by ‘bad language’ there is plenty in We Are the Best!, but the overall feel is warm and life-fulfilling. It does mean however that the film has a 15 certificate in the UK, ironically excluding its young actors from watching themselves on a cinema screen.  Moodysson’s second feature was the even more successful Tilsammans (Together) in 2004. This featured a hippy commune of sorts in the mid 1970s in a gentle satire. After that Moodysson’s gaze turned to some very dark subjects which garnered critical attention but relatively small audiences.

A beautifully composed image. Bobo and Klara have fallen out over a boy from another band and Bobo wanders over to the edge of the roof. The scene is also part of a gentle dig about where you live. To the boys this is still the city, but to the girls it is the dreaded 'suburbia'.

A beautifully composed image. Bobo and Klara have fallen out over a boy from another band and Bobo wanders over to the edge of the roof. The scene is also part of a gentle dig about where you live. To the boys this is still the city, but to the girls it is the dreaded ‘suburbia’.

The return to form for the popular audience comes via an adaptation of his partner’s graphic novel. Coco Moodysson’s story (drawing on her own teenage adventures) sees two teenage girls demanding to use the facilities of their local youth club to make music, even though they have no musical knowledge as such. They simply want to have the same access to facilities as the boys. Realising that they really need some input by someone who knows something and can play an instrument they approach a girl who is a year older but is generally ostracised in the school because she is a devout Christian. This is Hedwig, an intelligent girl who doesn’t like being left out and is open to persuasion. There is very little ‘plot’ in what is quite a long film (102 mins) for this kind of subject. Little plot but tons of observation and insight. Any audience will see themselves in this film – remembering how it felt, how families and friends reacted and what pleased them most at 13. The parents are skilfully represented and not lampooned. Instead they are gently satirised but also allowed to be human. The three girls were selected after a long casting exercise in which Moodysson had to make choices based on the three who worked together best. He chose well. In the press notes he puts a special emphasis on the costumes they wear and their overall look which, including the hair, is wonderful. The detail I like is that Klara wears a Palestinian keffiyeh which contradicts the fashion code but perfectly fits the mixture of rebellion, cool and joyful rejection of authority. Lukas and Coco appear to work well together and I’m not sure how much of each partner appears in the film. The graphic novel connection is interesting and I was sometimes reminded of Persepolis in terms of the ‘tone’ of the film. (Lukas Moodysson talks about ‘tone’ quite a lot in the notes – “I wanted to replicate the tone of the book . . . I’m not really so thorough with the storyline, I’m more interested in the tone, the mood, the details.”) I wonder if some enterprising publisher will bring out Coco Moodysson’s 2008 novel Aldrig godnatt (Never goodnight) in the UK/US? (Read an interview with Coco Moodysson at Female First.)

The music in the film is well chosen and fits the narrative. I know how important music has been to Swedish teens from the various books and films I’ve come across but I didn’t know anything about the punk scene. The press notes assure us that the music in the film is genuine, apart from, presumably, the great lyrics that the girls write – there one song is ‘Anti-Sport’ directed at their fascist PE teacher. (There is one social type which never seems to disappear, but occasionally the PE teacher can be sympathetic, as in Let the Right One In.) The look of the film is, I think, carefully managed to resemble a 1980s Swedish film. I did wonder if it was shot on film.

We Are the Best! deserves to be loved by audiences everywhere. It’s the perfect night out. Here’s the trailer:

BIFF 2014 #18: Shorts

The two brothers in 'Whale Valley'

The two brothers in ‘Whale Valley’

Portrait Without BleedBradford prides itself on its programming of shorts. I’m not really a shorts fan and I do tend to neglect them, though I appreciate the importance of short filmmaking in the ecology of film production generally. BIFF 2014 featured short films in a variety of programming slots. The ‘Shine Short Film Competition’ comprised six films shown as a programme twice and individual entries shown before the main feature elsewhere in the programme. I saw only two of the six, one of which, Cadet (Belgium 2013) won the prize (report to follow). I didn’t see any of the Sydney Underground Shorts which screened before the late night horror films in the ‘Bradford After Dark’ programme. (I couldn’t watch the late-night films as there is no all-night public transport to get me the nine miles home.) I only saw one of the Charles Urban early scientific films – these too had a separate programme.

I did see most of the ‘Cinetrain: Russian Winter’ films that were dotted across the main programme. This funded production programme invited international filmmakers to make films about communities in Northern Russia during the ferocious Russian winter. It’s an interesting project with information available on its website. Bradford showed all seven films which attempted to explore “the most common stereotypes about Russia”. These include excessive drinking, open-air bathing in the depths of winter, traditional Russian crafts etc. I was most intrigued by the village dwellers in one community who complained about the disintegration of local community/collectivist spirit. They viewed the new capitalist Russia with mistrust and felt that today people steal from each other to get by when they used to help each other. That’s a side of the new Russia that doesn’t get as much media attention as it should.

Other than these separate programmes, each of the ‘official features’ was also accompanied by an appropriate short film. I confess that under pressure with several screenings on the same day I sometimes missed the short on purpose to give myself a few extra minutes of breathing space. I’ll just pick out one other short (some are mentioned alongside the feature screenings). The one that impressed me most (i.e. appealed to my interests) was Whale Valley (Iceland-Denmark 2013) directed by Arnar Gudmundsson. This tells a complete and satisfying story about two brothers – a genuine ‘Nordic noir’ – on their farm (see the still above) in 15 minutes of skilled narrative filmmaking. I wasn’t surprised to learn about its success at festivals worldwide.

Nymphomaniac Pt 1 (Denmark-France-Germany-Belgium-Sweden-UK 2013)

Uma Thurman, Hugo Speer and Stacey Martin. Speer's character wants to leave his wife (Thurman) and move in with Jo.

Uma Thurman, Hugo Speer and Stacey Martin. Speer’s character wants to leave his wife (Thurman) and move in with Jo.

I’m not sure why I wanted to see this film. I’d previously seen  only one Lars von Trier film (Dancer in the Dark, 2000), not wanting to see the others after reading about them. However, Nymphomaniac seems to have had some decent reviews and I thought I needed to see something else of the work of the provocateur extraordinaire since he clearly attracts audiences.

The ‘plot’ of Nymphomaniac explores the sexual life of Jo from her early teenage years to her late 40s. The narrative structure uses a long flashback so the film begins with the older Jo lying bruised and battered in an alleyway in a nondescript urban setting, where she is found by Seligman, an older man who has a small apartment close by. He takes her in and she begins to tell her story – how she became a nymphomaniac.

There is a strange lack of identity in the film. This European co-production is presented in English (the Press Pack is in American English – the character is written as ‘Joe’ which I would usually think of as a male name). This in itself is not unusual for an ‘international film’ but, though filmed mainly in Germany, various aspects of the dialogue suggest that this is supposed to be the UK. It’s not clear to me if von Trier is trying to present a kind of ‘everywhere’. It would make sense to do so as otherwise we might attempt to read something from the UK context. Perhaps the film is a Danish joke about British attitudes to sex?

It’s a big ask for a young actor to be on screen for so much of the film in her debut role, but Stacey Martin does very well as the young Jo. Many reviews have picked up on the brief but powerful cameo by Uma Thurman as an angry wife and mother. The rest of the cast are also good but I don’t think that the script helps them – or the flat lighting and drab mise en scène. I wasn’t really provoked or excited by what was shown except by the scenes of Jo with her father on his hospital bed which did seem to have some emotional content. The numerous explicit sex scenes are not erotic. OK perhaps there was the occasional flicker of eroticism, but I think it is safe to assume that von Trier’s intention is not necessarily to arouse. Much of it is tedious and especially the repeated dialogue exchanges in which Jo (in her older self played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) tells Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) that she is a “bad human being” and he assures her that no such thing exists. I think we get the point Lars.

I think I’ll have to see Part 2 in order to say anything sensible about how I read the film. It’s slightly worrying that it might include more of the moralising banalities from Seligman  – and the chunks of erudition about fly fishing and other pursuits. On the other hand we will get more of the mature Jo played by Gainsbourg. Does Von Trier have something profound to tell us about nymphomania/sex addiction and/or the human spirit? Watch this space.